Argument

The Angry Lightweight

What's worse than not having a coherent foreign policy? Mouthing off about it.

To see more photos of Romney's foreign travels, click here.

If there is one apparent truism of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, it is that foreign policy doesn't matter. It's the economy, stupid. No one is interested in drones, Afghanistan, China, or the future of NATO -- or so say the political pundits. While such arguments are almost certainly overstated, Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign appears to buy into this construct. After all, how else can one explain the candidate's complete lack of seriousness on foreign policy in this campaign?

Beginning with July 24's speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) annual convention and continuing with his three-country trip to Britain, Israel, and Poland, the past week was supposed to showcase Romney's foreign-policy bona fides. Instead it has provided evidence that Romney may not quite be ready for foreign-policy prime time.

Indeed, Romney's first foray on the global stage has been an exercise in gaffe-making, needless provocation, and decidedly undiplomatic behavior. Honestly, who screws up a trip to Britain, America's perhaps most consistent and loyal ally? Whether it's insulting London's preparation for the Olympics, traveling to Israel and telling the Palestinian people they lack the cultural attributes to match the economic vitality of their occupier, or offering a veritable green light for unilateral Israeli attack against Iran, Romney's trips has raised far more doubts than they've squelched.

For those who have followed Romney's foreign-policy pronouncements to date, these doubts are not really new. Case in point: Romney's "big foreign-policy speech" last week before the VFW annual convention -- a speech that like so much of what the candidate has said on foreign policy was brimming with platitudes, threat-mongering, and a healthy dose of mistruths, but lacking in an actual description of what a Romney foreign policy might look like.

Indeed, Romney's speech was dominated by simply made-up attacks on President Barack Obama's foreign-policy stewardship and outlandish descriptions of America's supposed enemies.

His assertion that the "world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic" is simply not true. In fact, it's safer than it has ever been in terms of armed conflict. His claim that "the regime in Tehran is drawing closer to developing a nuclear weapon" is undercut by the view of the International Atomic Energy Agency and America's own intelligence agencies that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program. And of course his perennial charge that Obama has gone around the world apologizing for America is made out of whole cloth.

Yet the most outlandish, over-the-top mendacity was Romney's accusation that Obama is responsible for "an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts." Romney is referring to the sequestration cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in January 2013. What is missing from this lacerating rhetorical assault is that Republicans solely instigated the $1.1 trillion in defense cuts during last summer's debt-limit deal. The reductions (pending the work of the so-called supercommittee) were part of the price demanded for agreeing to raise the country's debt limit. Of course, Obama signed off on the deal, but to place all the responsibility on the president's shoulders and state that he "has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation's military capacity" is high-grade chutzpah.

Then again, for a campaign that tends to treat truth as though it's something of a moving target, this is perhaps not all that surprising.

What is surprising, however, about Romney's foreign-policy performance is not simply the belligerence directed against Obama -- but in fact his belligerence to the rest of the world. Indeed, it's difficult to remember a presidential candidate so prone to publicly attacking other countries. For example, while U.S.-relations with Russia remain rocky (but certainly better than they were four years ago) Romney significantly -- and needlessly -- upped the ante by calling Moscow, America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." Bashing China is hardly unheard of on the campaign trail, but Romney has been brazen in his criticisms, calling Beijing a "currency manipulator," a "cheater," and "ruthless" in its domestic policies, language hardly appropriate for a candidate who six months from now might have to sit down and work with the Chinese leadership.

When it comes to enemies of the United States, Romney has adopted positions that are dangerously provocative. On July 24, he called Iran a "catastrophic threat" and has previously speculated that the United States might not be able to survive if Iran were to possess a nuclear weapon. During his just-completed trip to Israel he said that U.S. policy toward Tehran should be oriented around stopping Iran from developing a nuclear "capability" rather than a weapon -- a criterion that would significantly lower the bar for the use of force against Iran.

Even smaller countries have not escaped Romney's wrath. This month, his campaign suggested that Venezuela is a serious threat to U.S. interests -- a comment that probably did more to feed President Hugo Chávez's ego then reflect reality.

Finally, he hasn't been much better with America's allies. On the campaign trail he regularly castigates the social welfare programs of America's European allies as the sort of freedom-crushing future that the United States must avoid at all costs, and he has warned that the United States could be at risk of ceding its sovereignty to the United Nations, an organization that Romney says does "some things that are good" and "a lot of things that are not good." And then there are his comments last week that sparked such fury in Britain.

Sometimes when a new president takes office he must repair the foreign-policy fractures caused by his predecessor, as Obama pledged to do in 2008. Romney may have a different problem: repairing relations with all the countries he has criticized, attacked, and mocked on the campaign trail this year.

Yet for all of Romney's gaffes and over-the-top rhetoric, what should be most disturbing is not how much time Romney has spent excoriating Obama or creating potential diplomatic rows, but rather what little time he has taken to explain to the American people how a Romney presidency would chart an alternate course.

For example, though he is far tougher rhetorically on Iran than Obama is (and dangerously so), his policy prescriptions are remarkably similar to that of the president. On China he has said that he will risk a trade war in order to avoid a U.S. "trade surrender," but has offered little sense of what he'll do to strengthen relations with America's top trading partner -- or whether doing so will even be a priority for his administration. If anything, he has rather self-consciously presented Beijing as little more than a clear threat to the United States and its interests. Additionally, how would he confront America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, Russia? On the Arab spring, he declared his intention to "stand for the values of representative government, economic opportunity, and human rights." But other than pledging to direct billions of dollars in assistance to Egypt to smooth its path to "freedom and modernity," he has said little about how he would encourage reform or even balance U.S. interests in the region with the values that he seems to place on the highest pedestal.

In his speech to the VFW, Romney had virtually nothing to say about terrorism, drones, or the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations -- even though he claimed that Islamist terrorism remains a serious threat and these issues are all currently at the forefront of U.S. foreign-policy discussions.

Romney did declare, however, that "the 21st century can and must be an American Century.… It's our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom and peace and prosperity." But how he will achieve that rather ambitious goal is a mystery, unless one believes simply stating that America must be the "strongest nation on Earth" and offering hoary platitudes about American leadership will make it so. In the end, the Romney campaign's approach to foreign policy seems to revolve around touting the fact that Mitt Romney is in fact not Barack Obama.

Campaigns are certainly not immune from political clichés, particularly on foreign policy, but Romney's lack of policy specificity borders on the embarrassing. Saying you'll do better than the other guy might get applause in the political cheap seats, but it's not a foreign-policy position -- and it's not the sort of approach that befits someone who wants to be president of the United States.

ALEX KOLOMOISKY/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Houston, We Have a Country

How American oil companies have built their own fiefdom in northern Iraq.

Less than a year after the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, Baghdad is losing a primary lever over independent-minded Kurdistan -- its grip on the northern region's revenue-earning oil industry. Kurdistan's secret weapon? Foreign oil companies are exasperated with Baghdad's stinginess and allured by the Kurds' more liberal terms for oil contracts.

These companies are becoming an unintentional fifth column in Kurdistan's march toward economic autonomy. On July 31, France's Total became the third big oil company to break with Baghdad by signing an unsanctioned oil deal with Kurdistan. Baghdad, intent on full mastery over the nation's massive petroleum revenue, forbids oil companies from dealing directly with Kurdistan and instead requires them to bid for projects through the Ministry of Oil and to ship their oil through Baghdad-controlled pipelines. However, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Total have now flouted Baghdad's wishes, putting their oil deals in Iraq's south at risk in the process. Their calculus is that despite the relative inferiority of Kurdistan's oil reserves, the potential upside there outweighs the downside threat of possibly losing access to Iraq proper, according to oil company executives with whom I have spoken.

The pressure will now be on Baghdad to somehow stem what is looking like an oil-company rebellion. It's yet another challenge for the Iraqi government, which is already struggling with rising violence and dropping oil revenue because of sagging global prices.

History has seen numerous states taken over by companies -- one thinks, for instance, of the United Fruit Company's activities in Latin America. But should this trend continue in Kurdistan, it would mark, as far as I recall, the first time that oil companies have been principal actors in a nation becoming effectively autonomous. Of course, it will be up to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to ensure that it is not swallowed up by the companies, which was the fate of some Central and South American countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

On the surface, the companies' decision to spurn Baghdad seems foolish. Iraq is a huge prize in the oil business, with some 148 billion barrels of proven oil reserves -- the second-largest conventional volume in the world. By comparison, the KRG claims to have another 45 billion barrels of oil under its own soil.

After Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003, oil companies from around the world rushed in for the right to both rework old, debilitated fields, and to drill new ones. But Baghdad has exacted tight-fisted terms, signing only low-paying service contracts that effectively turn high-risk, high-return wildcatters into mere hired hands. Until recently, the world's oil companies have bristled at the terms, but gone along in hopes of conventional production sharing agreements down the road. Now, the grumbling in the ranks is growing to a roar.

A fourth-round auction of oil properties in May showed both that Baghdad seems to have no intention of greater generosity -- and also that the companies are fed up. Just three of 12 blocks on offer found successful takers.

In October, ordinarily ultraconservative Exxon uncharacteristically signaled the first sign of upheaval by signing an exploration deal with Kurdistan despite having an agreement to produce oil at Iraq's West Qurna field. That seemed quite a gamble: West Qurna, after all, holds some 8.7 billion barrels of oil, and there was a distinct possibility that Baghdad would revoke the deal as punishment for Exxon's opening to the Kurds. Now, Total's decision -- the purchase of a 35 percent stake in two exploration blocks in Kurdistan -- makes what had been a gingerly tip-toeing toward the KRG look more like a headlong rush. Total did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Punishment has been meted out for the companies' defiance: Exxon was barred from the latest auction, and Chevron, which has no current deal in the south, has been officially blacklisted from any future contracts. However, the companies don't seem fazed in the least.

"We understand completely that if we enter into a contract in the north, we're probably going to be blackballed in the south," an official from one of the companies told me on condition of anonymity. "So the question is, 'Have we exhausted all our options for getting a deal in the south on terms that we would find acceptable?'"

The answer for companies headed for the door is yes, the official said. "I think that's beginning to be borne out as a lot of companies are looking to renegotiate their terms," he told me.

"The terms in the north are much better. The government gets a stake, but the better you do, the more you get, and the terms are attractive," he said. Plus the overall conditions are "night and day better" in Kurdistan than in Baghdad, he said. "You fly into a very modern, efficient airport. There are good hotels, good infrastructure."

When combined with the Kurdish authorities' already-existing plans to build independent oil and natural gas export pipelines out of Kurdistan that avoid the Arab regions of Iraq entirely, the oil deals look increasingly like a robust, commercial-led carving out of the region as a stand-alone entity. Some might call it another substantial piece of the puzzle toward the creation of the Kurds' longstanding national dream -- a state of their own.

Robin Mills, a former Shell geologist and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis who does private consulting on Iraq, said in a Twitter exchange that the Total news is a "big blow" for Baghdad. As for Total itself, the company seemed to be taking on sub-par fields in Kurdistan -- "not a crown jewel in return for risk they're taking with Baghdad" -- but that "perhaps Total just doesn't see any risk with Baghdad any more."

Can the embattled Iraqi central government get the rebellious oil companies back in line? Patrick Osgood, deputy editor of Oil & Gas Middle East magazine, suggested in a tweet that Baghdad could respond by making "a quick fire sale [of Total's fields] to Petrochina," the publicly traded arm of the state-controlled China National Petroleum Company. But even that may not solve Baghdad's basic problem: "Can't see it's smart for Baghdad to be so reliant on Shell, BP, Russians & Chinese," Mills said.

Some messages that run counter to conventional wisdom stand out from this showdown: Oil companies, it turns out, will not pay any price for access to the biggest fields in the world, but in fact will seek greener pastures. Oil cannot be bottled up -- it will find its market. And sometimes, a new state can take form without a shot fired or a single protester in the street.

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/GettyImages